Sunday, September 23, 2007

Chris Black/POTRZEBIE Dance Project-Justin Herman Plaza Park

Generalization and categorization may not be popular in the performing arts, but in today’s modern dance scene, most choreographers fall into one of three camps: 1) the movement for movement’s sake abstractionists, 2) the narrative storytellers and 3) the hybrids who seek some marriage of form and content. The hybrids’ process is a bit of a mystery but one creative method they employ involves searching for inspiration and using it as a jumping off point for choreography. Common choices include class politics, social relationships, and feminism in the media. Unfortunately, because of their popularity, these issues have been analyzed to death in modern dance. Therefore, it is refreshing to see new works from modern choreographers that look outside of angsty subject-matter to other sources of insight, which also provide surprisingly deep and meaningful revelations. In Chris Black’s newest work, Pastime, she looked to baseball, and even though it may not fall into a socio-economic-political classification, it, too can teach when placed in the arena of the performing arts. Specifically, it demonstrates an ingenious use of the deconstructed narrative in modern dance while illustrating a brilliant juxtaposition of motion and stillness as well as highlighting the dark competitive side of humanity.

The idea of the ‘deconstructed narrative’ became a popular choreographic framework in the eighties and nineties as a response to the previous decades where content was conspicuously absent from much modern dance. With a deconstructed narrative, there is not a specific story or plotline. Instead, there is an idea, a concept, a topic that molds the work and provides a basis for choreographic invention and experimentation. Pastime had this; it was incredibly successful at unifying form and content as two interdependent variables. It was about baseball, but it was not a dance version of a nine-inning game from beginning to end. Rather, baseball was the foundation for exploration of movement. In the forty minute dance, there were gestural representations found specifically in baseball-pitching, batting, catching, sliding, and perhaps most interesting, the use of covert communicative coaching signals. But again, all of these movements were interspersed in the abstract expressionist choreography. They were not really telling a linear story; they were the inspiration and thus, illustrated a perfect example of the deconstructed narrative in modern dance.

Because of this unique fusion of baseball and movement, there were ample opportunities to witness a distinctive relationship between motion and stillness as is often apparent in a baseball game. Near the beginning of the piece, there was a section where the dancers toggled between moving around the field and a typical ‘resting’ baseball position, which in dance terms translated to standing in parallel 2nd, with hands placed on thighs. In this interchange, the audience could see how motion can erupt from a state of being still. Even when at rest, the next movement can be born within mind and body, sometimes explosively; sometimes calmly and sometimes purposely.

The presence of aggression in the piece was a bit of a surprise. Often baseball is tantamount to a sunny, happy, afternoon with family and ballpark snacks. Until playoff time, many fair-weather fans forget that it is a competitive sport where there are winners and losers. Contentiousness, anger and frustration are just as much a part of the game as are home runs and the amazing fly-ball catch. In the choreography, Black illustrated this hostility in several ways. It was seen between pitcher and batter characters as well as between team members. There was one sequence where two dancers played out a ‘duel’ scenario. They had a confrontation, and then backed away; but kept their eyes glued to each other. Dancers continued to move all around them, yet their gaze remained locked for what seemed like five minutes; the competitive tension was palpable.

Pastime was a great abstract expression of sport in dance. And, the dancers looked like baseball players. Because of all the rolling around in the natural park setting, by the end of the piece their costumes (‘baseball’ shirts) were covered in grass stains, just like real baseball players at the end of a game. Also, Erik Pearson’s brilliant score of baseball related music played on transistor radios further contextualized the piece into the baseball world. But, aside from these strikingly realistic visual and audio cues, the true achievement of Chris Black/POTRZEBIE Dance Project’s, Pastime, is the mixing of two unlikely ingredients and the surprising product that was created by this merger.

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